The Times, November 01, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

Born in Greece, educated at Cambridge and now the queen of Capitol Hill: Arianna Huffington’s superblog has made her one of the most influential political commentators in America

Arianna Huffington
Vince Bucci

There’s a perfect Arianna moment during our long interview in the heat of the Los Angeles summer, when I ask her whether she’s seen Swing Vote, a highly topical film that had just opened in America, starring and bankrolled by Kevin Costner. “Yes,” she says. “I am in it…” Pause. “I play myself.”

Well, of course she does. In a film whose central premise is that the outcome of a US presidential election hangs on the vote of one “ordinary American” – that most sought-after coupling of words in this charged real election – the extraordinary Arianna Huffington with her hugely influential political blog (key postings by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), The Huffington Post, aka HuffPo, practically commands a cameo role.

There are a number of reasons why I laugh out loud. La Huff’s slightly huffy (forgive the pun but it happens to be true) presumption that, surely, I should already be aware of her small but significant part; her insouciance about the obviousness of her role as a player in Hollywood; the whole slightly nutty reality TV idea of it is funny. It’s just too much, don’t you agree? Probably not, judging by Arianna’s blank response: “I thought that was why you were mentioning it.”

Our day together started chaotically. I arrived bang on time at Huffington’s home, a Mediterranean old-style villa in the swish Bel-Air borders of Brentwood, which once boasted Hollywood royals Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as residents, and latterly O.J. Simpson. The photo shoot was supposed to have finished but had not even started, which offered the opportunity for a longish perusal of the property.

The somewhat madhouse atmosphere, full of keen interns declaring their work is “awesome”, is amplified by a singsong woman’s voice on an endless loop – the Velvet Underground, it turns out, by way of the Juno soundtrack: “I’m sticking with you, ’cos I’m made out of glue, Anything that you might do, I’m gonna do too.”

Beyond the impeccably green collection of Prius cars (or Prii, as Huffington tells me her daughters call them), the front door opens into a vast hallway which would be perfect for the high-powered networking gatherings that were once considered, but no longer, to be Huffington’s central raison d’être. The French windows open out to an extended courtyard with steps leading down to a swimming pool and cabana, flanked by guest houses with wings for the various members of Arianna’s extended family – her late mother, Elli, used to live with her, and her younger sister, Agapi, 56, still does – whom she describes as her “tribe”.

A large dining-room table is covered in platters of fresh fruit and plates of honey-oozing baklava – Arianna has inherited her mother’s hospitality gene – which are intermittently snarfed by the great traffic of people passing through the house. Lempicka lookalikes are on the walls, and a blue portrait by Françoise Gilot; Arianna insists that it was Picasso who copied his ex-wife during his Blue Period, rather than the other way round. There are many, many photographs – almost all of family but also one of Barack Obama who seems, at first glance, to be stroking Arianna’s neck in a gesture of infinite tenderness, while she gazes at him. When I bring this to her attention, Arianna says he was merely gesticulating (which is clearer on close inspection), and then she points out her 19-year-old daughter, Christina, in the background.

Half an hour passes, and Arianna appears, trim in black, only to disappear again, stripping off her shirt to reveal her bra as she jogs up the sweeping staircase. Hair recoiffed, a change of clothes for the last lot of photos, poised on a column of her dozen books, ranging from her early biographies on Picasso and Maria Callas to her recent self-helpish bestseller, On Becoming Fearless, via the political – Right is Wrong, with the longest subtitle: How the lunatic fringe hijacked America, shredded the Constitution, and made us all less safe (and what you need to know to end the madness).

Finally, La Huff has done posing and sits to talk by my side at the giant table. Among the flurry of interruptions and disturbances, there is a sense of contained stillness and calm about her, as well as an unusual quality of simultaneous engagement and detachment. I wonder whether this is a result of so many years of New Age training or because she sometimes doesn’t quite catch the nuance of a question or maybe it’s just a technique for remaining unflappable. I had caught Arianna being grilled by Paxman on Newsnight a week before we met, and his incredulous eyebrow and withering tone didn’t faze her in the least. If anything, she got the better of him.

At 58, she still has the looks of a woman who might flick her burnished mane but she does not. In fact, there is something strikingly unanimated about her. The only tic Arianna seems to have is to knock on the table whenever she says “touch wood”, which is her response to anything from her hope that America is well and truly ready for change to her younger daughter overcoming anorexia.

She is the coolest warm person I have ever met, with a tepid social laugh and a constant refrain that many of her natural inclinations are to do with her “Greek peasant” stock. There are certain contexts where this works: her shrugged-off explanation for the youthful glow of her unstretched skin, and some which make her sound rather less empathic.

When we talk about Isabella’s anorexia, for instance, which she wrote about (with her daughter’s permission) in Fearless, I ask her whether she has ever suffered from anything similar: “No, it’s not a Greek peasant girl disease,” she says. “I always consider myself from Greek peasant stock, I don’t know if I am or not, but I feel I have this earthiness and there’s a sense of perspective that food is precious and I don’t suffer from all these diseases of civilisation.” One takes her point, but I wonder how helpful this robust distaste for modern-day afflictions might have been when her 11-year-old daughter, now 17, was suffering.

Since her intention is to create the first internet newspaper, rather than a mere political blog – the liberal Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) is the most talked about of these – I ask her baldly whether she thinks that America really is unracist enough to vote in a black President. “I don’t think that’s the issue at all. Sure, there’s residual racism but it’s marginal and nobody expects Obama or anyone else to be elected unanimously.

“What happens in elections, unfortunately, is that fear-mongering works. That’s what happened in American politics in ’04; there’s no earthly reason why George Bush would have been re-elected after it had been proven that there were no WMD, after it had been proven that we had tortured people in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and despite all that he was.”

The fear factor prompted Arianna to write three posts dispensing her advice to Obama. She doesn’t hold with my reinterpetation that one of her lines is that it’s important for her candidate not to dilute his position – to become Obama-lite – and shift to the centre. “It’s not about moving to the centre in the sense of abandoning any particular progressive position; that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about not being true to yourself.

“When you’re not seen as being true to yourself, then you’re not the leader who can unite a country and bring about real solutions. You are another pawn who listens to the polling data which has been proved so completely wrong again and again. So he must not surrender to the siren songs of consultants, pollsters and caution. He must follow his own drama and create a new consensus around what needs to be done. That’s leadership.”

There is strong evidence that negative campaigning, however unpleasant, works but Arianna’s view is that what Obama’s team needs to do, instead, is concentrate on galvanising the great abstaining swaths of the electorate, rather than focus on the unreliable whims of the swinging voter. “I’m saying don’t fight with John McCain over them – the oscillating ones who are most easily fearmongered. Run a campaign which is predicated on expanding the electorate: the almost 50 per cent, over 83 million Americans, who did not vote in the ’04 election. If he can get five per cent of these millions who did not vote, then he’s there… and I absolutely think it’s the likely outcome.”

There has been much comment about how the democratising power of the internet has shaped this election and transformed the nature of those in the future. Arianna, as one might expect, is enthralled by the potential of using the internet as a tool to reach out to so many people: “That is what is great about now; you can just keep giving great speeches that go on YouTube which people download. Obama’s speech on race – which was a great speech – has been downloaded in its entirety millions of times.

“And, by the way, this idea that John McCain and so many people in the media are contemptuous of eloquence! Rhetoric has always been a part of great leadership, whether it is Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela being able to move hearts and minds through words. I mean, how else does change happen?”

She, of course, has been famously open to change, having swung from being a darling of the right – at Cambridge, where she was President of the Union, a conservative commentator when she was the girlfriend of Times columnist the late Bernard Levin, courting the neo-con likes of Newt Gingrich when she moved to the States, promoting the political career of her ex-husband, the Republican oil scion Michael Huffington, who came out as a bisexual after their marriage ended – to a most outspoken champion of the liberal left.

It’s the sort of journey, one imagines, that has left numbers of her former friends and allies feeling betrayed. But Arianna points out that her core values have always been liberal: “Even during my Republican interregnum, I was always pro gay rights, pro choice and pro gun control. So if you take these three major social issues in American politics, I have always been progressive and I haven’t changed. The only change which has been fundamental is my understanding of the role of government.”

It is she, indeed, who feels let down by her former political soul mates who have changed – in particular, John McCain. Coming from a culture that venerates age, Arianna would never use the age card against him but says: “The problem with McCain is not his chronological age, it’s the age of his ideas: his views on gay marriage or Iraq or what we should do with the economy.

“He has given up all his core beliefs which had to do with ‘the agents of intolerance’, which is what he had called the religious right – and now he’s kissing their rings. On taxation, he had voted twice against George Bush’s tax cuts, and now he wants to make them permanent. On immigration, he had a very sensible bill but now he’s saying he will vote against his own bill. Torture was the ultimate surrender. This hero who has been tortured, voted against a bill that would have banned the CIA from using torture.

“So that has been his Faustian bargain and that is why he sounds so discombobulated because he has no compass. He goes wherever they need him. It’s really sad and I don’t mean that just as a phrase. This is a really noble man who’s fallen.”

The Sarah Palin curiosity show was not yet in play when we spoke but Arianna subsequently made her views plain on HuffPo, where she posts an editorial four times a week. (She still writes her weekly syndicated newspaper column for the Tribune group.) After watching the vice-presidential debate – as a member of the audience, naturally – she wrote about Palin coming across as an “over-wound-up doll, sporting a pasted-on smile that never varied, except when she winked”. She was also alarmed by the extent to which the neo-cons, her own former political bedmates, had been apparently grooming the moose-queen behind the scenes.

In one of my e-mailed questions for a last-minute update, I asked Arianna whether she considered Palin had done less or more for women by coming this far, and was impressed by the thoughtfulness and speed with which she replied. “In one way,” she said, “she’s been a throwback – relying on a flirty charm rather than knowledge, intelligence, insight. But her candidacy has been good in that it proved that just being female is not enough to attract women voters. Indeed, Palin has fared particularly poorly with women – especially women under 50.

“When the dust settles, I believe Palin will be remembered as a disastrous – and ridiculously risky – selection for McCain to have made. And she’ll go on to do what she seems to like to do best: perform. I think she’ll become the wildly popular host of a TV reality show.”

Arianna chose not to support Hillary in the primaries principally because of her position on the war. But her disappointment with the Clinton regime goes deeper: “The attempt to reform healthcare was the last bold position of the Clinton administration. Yet the Nineties was a very prosperous, good time in America; a time that we could have come together for a great collective purpose.

“To come together and try to reform healthcare again. It’s, like, you don’t give up the first time. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘Well, Lyndon Johnson said we don’t have the vote. So, OK, let’s move on’! When was reform ever easy?”

So why should we attach any importance to the opinions of a self-declared, if extensively reinvented, Greek peasant girl? La Huff is hardly a household name in this country although older readers may remember her as Arianna Stassinopoulos. But, now more than ever, she is undoubtedly a big deal in America (making Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006) – where she moved first to New York with her mother in 1980 at 30, realising after an intense 9-year relationship that she had no future with her mentor and first big love, Bernard Levin, 22 years her senior.

It was Lord Weidenfeld, the publisher, who had advised her to befriend the wives not the husbands of the powerbroking set on the Upper East Side, arming her with a list of contacts. He had encouraged her to write the Callas biography, which was serialised by Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, husband of Tina Brown, who has recently launched her own internet venture in America, The Daily Beast; they all remain the best of friends, wheels within wheels.

I had said to Arianna that while I did not wish, personally, to be bamboozled by her legendary charm – “No chance of that!” she had said rather sharply – nonetheless it was interesting how she had set about cultivating friendships with such powerful and influential women, and with such stunning success. (Ann Getty, who not only found her a husband but paid for the wedding in 1986 which, by most accounts, stretched even her own customary extravagance; Barbara Walters was a bridesmaid.)

“There was no five-year plan,” she says. “And there isn’t one now. So many of the good things I have in my life were the result of coincidence… of things that came to me. For instance, the Maria Callas was a tiny book, with a much smaller advance than the Picasso, but Harry Evans got into a bidding war with The Observer and paid more money than any previous serialisation, which was what made the book. All those things I did not cause. [The subsequent kerfuffle about a now settled plagiarism charge only served to swell the sales.]

“So the idea that you charm your way into great things happening to you would be untrue and it would also not be good advice to anyone who is listening. I feel that the only advice I can give in terms of quote unquote ‘charm’ is that if you really like people and genuinely care to know more about them, it’s just a great way to go through life.”

During her Manhattan years, Arianna became a fixture on the social scene and was written about in not always flattering terms which tend to get recycled, being memorable if cruel, in profiles such as this. My favourite is the one about her being the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus. We have a slightly surreal moment competing to remember the cleverest Arianna put-downs. “There are some good lines,” she agrees. “Do you know the one Henry Kissinger said about our wedding?” (That it had everything but “an Aztec sacrificial fire dance”.)

Just as I’m thinking this bland equanimity is almost too good to be true, she makes a spirited rejoinder: “Henry Kissinger was out as much as I was, and I didn’t hear anybody calling him a socialite! There were many men around at those same dinners – as much if not more so than I was – but you’ve never heard those adjectives attributed to men. Never.”

Did the comments bother her at the time and do they still? “At the time, they did, yes, but if at 58, I still minded those things I would really worry about myself because it would mean I was completely missing out on the point of life.” And the point of life is…? “The point of life is freedom,” she says. “And the more free we are, the less we care about what other people think of us.”

Earlier, I had asked Arianna whether she could imagine dying for anything she believed in. “Yes, yes,” she says. “Definitely I would die for my children. There’s a lot I believe in, but we have to be more concrete otherwise we sound a little bit melodramatic.”

I explain that I’m asking because both her parents put their lives at risk, driven by their beliefs. “Ultimately it has to do with big words and big values, and with me of all the big values, it would be truth – but then what is the concrete manifestation of that big value?”

OK, say somebody tried to make you write propaganda? “That would be a very good example, yes. To lie about something which would inevitably put people at risk.” Does she consider herself to be physically courageous? “I’m not in the athletic sense of scaling mountains or anything like that. [She is a keen hiker, however.] But I think I’m courageous in terms of challenging the conventional wisdom… of speaking truth to power. Actually, I don’t even consider it courageous.”

Her mother, Elli, worked for the Red Cross in her early twenties during the Greek Civil War and was up in the mountains hiding Jewish teenagers. One night they found themselves surrounded by German soldiers demanding that they surrender the Jews. Elli, who apparently spoke many languages, all self-taught, “in an accent stronger than mine”, her daughter says, came forward and boldly told them in fluent German, “We have no Jews here, put your guns down,” and, remarkably, they did. “She said it with such authority and she was really fearless, all her life and fearless for us, too, which is why I took that name for the book from her. She was definitely the foundation of everything for me… but that’s another story.”

Constantine Stassinopoulos, her journalist father, edited a Resistance newspaper during the occupation, and was caught by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. After the liberation, while regaining his strength in a sanatorium, he met Elli who was recovering from TB and coming to terms with the sad news that she could not have children as a result. The two had an affair, whereupon she promptly fell pregnant and was fully prepared to bring the baby up on her own. “Yes,” Arianna says rather proudly, “I was a lovechild.” Eventually there was a wedding, with Elli “and her substantial belly”, but Constantine’s idea of marriage, when his wife complained about his endless affairs, was, “You should not interfere with my private life.” It was a sense of entitlement, his daughter explains, “‘I survived and life owes me.’”

It was Michael Huffington who persuaded Arianna’s father to write a book about his experiences, and paid for it to be published and translated: “They were really close, even though my father did not speak English, and it was beautiful to see these two people who did not have a common language but still had this incredible bond.”

The Stassinopouloses split up when Arianna was 11 and Agapi was 9, although they never divorced and died within months of each other in 2000. Elli sounds like a wonderful character, padding around the Upper East Side apartment in a fur coat and bare feet, smoking cigars. Her idea of a humdinging party was inviting the plumbers and handymen to mingle with the statesmen and bankers. “She had no sense of hierarchy and could not have an impersonal relationship. If you went shopping with her, she would engage with the shop assistant. Not to be nice or because she wanted something; it’s just the way she was.

“She never dyed her hair or wore make-up, she was just totally real. I’m not advocating that, I’m just saying what a role model she was,” Arianna says.

The other way she influenced her daughter was her interest in spiritual matters and alternative ways of thinking. Long before it was mainstream, Elli was practising yoga and meditation and sent her daughter off at 16 to study comparative religions in Calcutta. (The following year, mother and daughters moved to London so that Arianna could pursue her dream of going to Cambridge, where she was awarded an exhibition to read economics at Girton.)

“She was completely grounded in reality but at the same time understood that there is more to life than this material reality. She would quote Socrates who said, ‘Practise death daily’, not in a morbid sense but in a sense of bringing perspective into your life,” Arianna says. “It’s stunning, when you think about it, that we live life as though we’re never going to die when the one absolute reality – whether you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a believer, whether it’s tomorrow or in 30 years – is that we’re all going to die, right?”

There was a period in the mid to late Seventies, in the UK as well as the States, when self-discovery became the buzzword. You could take your pick from est (whose guru, Werner Ehrhardt, was one of La Huff’s boyfriends), Insight, Exegisis and the latterly disgraced Bhagwan Rajneesh with his followers in their flame-coloured clothes; Arianna enthusiastically did and, indeed, only recently participated in an Insight seminar in Los Angeles. She says these accelerated therapy sessions – and, perhaps, California was always going to be her spiritual home – have helped her to realise that: “It wasn’t enough for my life to be about me and my children and my work, it had to be something about being connected with a larger story, the story of our time.”

I can still recall the shock of seeing a drawing of the towering intellect Bernard Levin dressed in a tutu, illustrating an article by a playwright, Snoo Wilson, who had seen him thus transformed at one such course. Arianna also remembers it and the publication it appeared in, Time Out. While Levin may have been her teacher in so many ways, it was she who was responsible (and blamed) for encouraging him to explore the instant therapy route. So was he wearing a tutu and if so why? “He was in Jungian analysis and it was his way of illustrating his feminine side,” she says. “It was the side of him that he felt he had suppressed. For him, it was really about breaking taboos to do with tenderness and intimacy, all the problems that he had with intimacy and relationships.” Did he find it helpful? “It was Insight and, yes, he found it incredibly helpful.”

It was this problem that, despite young Arianna’s best efforts, led to the break-up. Although it is long ago in her past, when she talks about the pain of that rejection, falteringly rather than in her easy eloquent flow, it still seems sad and smartingly real. “He was so committed to our relationship – that was what was so hard,” she says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t want the relationship to last for ever, he just didn’t want to have children. Obviously I would say his own childhood… well, he had a lot of problems and he desperately wanted to break down those barriers to intimacy – emotional intimacy – but he couldn’t, he had such a hard time.”

On Levin’s death in 2004, after a long descent into Alzheimer’s, Arianna wrote a moving piece in which she recalled the way he would retreat into himself when faced with confrontation. “Yes, and for me it was always to engage,” she says. “It was very hard because I was very much in love with him so, you know, it was painful when he would withdraw.

“But although it did feel like an incredible rejection, and it was very painful, which was what made me decide to move to New York, it taught me a lot about the mystery of life. Because when I look back, everything that’s happened in my life happened, in a way, as a result of that rejection. My children, The Huffington Post, my whole life here would not have happened – so that is how I see it, however painful and hard it may have seemed at the time.”

She is, understandably, less open about the failure of her marriage. Arianna was seen by her critics – who were legion – to have been harnessing her own social and political ambitions when she worked so indefatigably to promote her husband’s career. In 1988, when Michael was deputy assistant secretary of defence for negotiations policy under the Reagan administration, the Huffingtons moved from Washington DC to Santa Barbara, California, where he ran for and won a seat in Congress. In 1994, he spent almost $30 million of his own money – a record for a non-presidential campaign at the time – but lost in the general election by 1.9 per cent of the vote to Dianne Feinstein. Three years later, the couple separated and in 1998, Michael Huffington disclosed his sexuality in an interview in Esquire. In 2003, when Arianna stood as an independent candidate to be governor of California (later withdrawing), her ex-husband – who remains a staunch Republican – chose to endorse her opponent, the present governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is a bit of a cloud around how much or how little Arianna knew about Michael’s sexuality when they married. She has said, in the past, that she wasn’t aware of his inclinations. For his part, he states things very clearly in a recent New Yorker piece: “In December 1985… I sat down with her and told her that I had dated women and men so that she would be aware of it. I didn’t think it fair not to mention my bisexuality… And the good news was that it was not an issue for her.” He is now a film producer whose projects include We’re All Angels, about a gay Christian pop singer combo, and earlier this year, Bi the Way, a documentary on bisexuality.

There were a lot of ups and downs in the divorce years, Arianna says, but they’ve come through it as friends. They have weathered storms before, after all, when they lost their first born baby, a son they named Alexander Roy. Arianna says that she and her daughters often wonder what he would have been like: “He’d be 21 now and we have this thing that he wouldn’t be intellectual like the two girls; he’d be at college on some jock scholarship and intimidated by his really brilliant sisters, you know!”

Michael lives in Boston now but only the other evening came round for dinner. “He’s a very good father and we were determined to put our children first,” she says. “So we’ve always had birthdays and Christmas together, just the four of us – and at times it was harder for the two of us – but it’s reached a point where it’s very natural.”

Their daughters, she says, “are very resolved about their father’s decision to come out and they’ve dealt with it. I should never have discussed it when I did and it was really my mistake but he and I have agreed, for the sake of the children, it’s not something that anyone can benefit from, going back and forth on that.”

Later, when I’m wondering how the couple could bear to have been mixing with the neo-cons and their toxic homophobic hatred, Arianna counters: “But there have always been pro gay rights Republicans. That’s just one of the many contradictions in the party.

“Michael was always pro gay rights when he was a Republican congressman and now. He’s involved with this group called the Log Cabin Republicans and they’re gay Republicans advocating gay rights within the Republican party.”

Arianna says she is single at the moment, “but I am very open to having a boyfriend and falling in love again although I’m not looking for it.” I ask her whether she would like to remarry and she says, quite revealingly: “I think it’s very unlikely. I feel marriage was for me about having my children and right now, again I’m not ruling it out, but I definitely don’t see it on the horizon.”

In the meantime, there’s more than enough to occupy her time with her new baby The Huffington Post, which goes from strength to strength. In last week’s e-mail she tells me that it has seen “remarkable growth” this year, “with 19.5 million unique visitors in September, the highest number ever for the site and October will be even higher”. This is all double Dutch to me but I do note the New Yorker’s reference in mid-October to its importance as a liberal foil to the Drudge Report and that in February “according to Nielsen Online, it drew 3.7 million unique visitors surpassing Drudge for the first time” and that in August, the site logged 5.1 million unique visitors. So, yes, “remarkable growth” sounds pretty accurate.

Arianna chose not to answer my questions about profitability or valuation (the latest estimation was a sale price of $200 million), other than to point out that she has not invested any of her own money in the project, only her time. But she did tell me that, “We are not consistently making a profit. There are profitable months and not profitable months, depending on the combination of expenses and advertising we bring in.” She and her partner, Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL executive, who launched The Huffington Post in 2005 have already set up a Chicago office, and Arianna – never known for the limitations of her vision – seems set for global domination: “Ideally we want to expand around the world.”

She’s very glad to see that her “great friend” Tina Brown is “diving into the internet” and she doesn’t appear to be at all bothered by the competition: “The more sites there are offering smart, compelling content, the more people will get their news, opinion and entertainment online. That’s good for all of us.”

When I asked where she will be on election night and with whom, she replied, “I will be with our Huffington Post team, covering the results second by second!” On a second e-mail, she added that her younger daughter would be with her, as the older one has just started at Yale: “I’m on my way right now to my first parents’ weekend!”

My final late question was, knowing how sceptical she is about the veracity of the polls: are you more or less confident that Obama will be the next President than you were in the summer? “More,” she wrote. “In tough times, we need someone with a steady hand on the tiller. By that measure, Obama has been the clear winner. He’s been centred where McCain was scattered. Forceful where McCain was forced. Presidential where McCain was petulant.”

And her sign-off was pure Arianna: “Of course, at heart, I’m still a superstitious Greek peasant girl, so I’m not counting my chickens – or my lambs – yet.”

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